A weekly place at the table

Since we are still building our dream dining room table, I had to improvise for our most recent small group.  (This quaint fabrication is made of every spare table in our house.)
Since we are still building our dream dining room table, I had to improvise for our most recent small group. (This quaint fabrication is made of every spare table in our house and is ridiculously unstable.)

In the childhood church that launched my spiritual journey, the refrain I always heard was “service.”  More times than I can remember, leaders queried, “How are you serving the church?  Are you actively involved in a serving team?  Are you connected?  Let’s get you connected.”  If there was a badge for Christian Service, it might involve clocking so many hours with the children’s ministry that the time commitment is comparable to a part-time job.  It would also involve a weekly liturgy of “Yes.  Sign me up.  See you Sunday.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with service to the church.  If members feel called to serve, then they should be able to, no matter how many hours they wish to offer up.  This particular church thrived on Sunday mornings thanks to the dedicated work of volunteers, and, though I may gripe, I’m proud of the work I did during those important years of spiritual formation: I’ve worked in nurseries galore, sung in all the praise bands, cleaned, chaperoned, and even crafted for Christ.

But when we moved to Texas, I found incredible peace in simply going to church rather than serving the church.  For the first time, pastors told me that it was enough just to come and participate, a concept that felt wild to me at the time—maybe even a little sacrilegious.  The discovery of an authentic practice of Sabbath was mind-blowing.  In fact, my discovery of Sabbath was long overdue.

Eventually, B. J. volunteered us to host a small group, something I long resisted because we were tiny apartment-dwellers.  I relented when we finally had a house of our own, although I still felt a tinge of reluctance.  Looking back, I’m shocked by how much I inwardly dreaded Sunday nights, our group’s meeting time: we have to host all these people again?  They’re coming back every week?  We weren’t technically “leaders,” just “hosts,” a categorization that should have made me feel more relaxed.  But the pressure of feeding and connecting with mostly undergraduates every week was tiring, despite the fact that my own work day revolves around college students.  I struggled to get the hang of it.

I became even more frustrated when we would block off the evening for small group time, tidy up the house, prepare dinner, and then no one would come.  This is what you get when you have college students—they are exuberant, fascinating, and utterly undependable.

Even though I knew all this, the empty table and overflowing platters still made me feel ready to quit.

One of the beautiful things I’m grateful for in my marriage to B. J., though, is that he doesn’t let me quit so easily.  My tendency is to give up as soon as I realize my lack of success, but B. J. always pushes me to keep at it.  “This is what small group work is like,” he said.  “You have to be vulnerable enough to set the table, even when you’re doubtful people will come.  And you have to keep inviting them when they don’t show up for the fortieth time.”

So that’s what we did.  We kept setting the table, preparing the food, and sending the e-mails.  We let ourselves be sad when no one came and repeatedly allowed ourselves to feel all the painful emotions of a wasted, uneaten meal.

And after two hard years of reluctant but consistent open doors and set tables, something changed.  We almost didn’t notice the shift.  I wish I could pinpoint what happened (did we do something different? did everyone just become more dependable?), but I can’t.  The growing pains were finished somehow, and suddenly we found ourselves parents to a weekly small group that wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  My earliest memory of the turn didn’t even occur during group time—it happened at night while I was falling asleep, long after everyone had gone home for the evening.  In the darkness, I caught myself mentally planning a feast for the next week’s meeting.  “Something fancy,” I strategized.  “A meal they can’t get anywhere else right now: slow smoked brisket, mashed potatoes, homemade rolls, perfected sweet tea…”

I dreamed mindlessly for a bit about the feast, and then it hit me.  For the first time in the life of our small group, I wasn’t scheming the most efficient, cost-effective, quickest meal to whip up (i.e. frozen lasagna, delivery pizza, sloppy joes, etc.).  I was planning a true feast, a whole-hearted, celebratory meal in honor of the people who’d come to constitute our little community within the Church.  These people were always worth celebrating, for sure, but my impulses magically aligned with the ideal for a moment and I understood the gravity of our weekly gathering: it was always meant to be a kind of feast.

Now to come full circle:  I started out on the note of “service,” and that’s where I’ll end.  Caring for a small group is the slowest, messiest, and most consistently disappointing service I’ve ever done for the Church.  It is unglamorous.  People join eagerly and move on silently.  And it is occasionally mortifying, especially when people visit once and then never return thanks (you suppose) to your own un-coolness.  Yet I think it may be some of the most important work I’ve ever done in service of Christian community—to make a place at the table every single week, even when it’s likely no one will come.

But thank God when they do.

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